Belfast Telegraph

Why we should know who is funding political parties

The legislation barring publication of those who give our politicians money should be changed, says Anna Carragher

The recent controversy caused by The Sunday Times report on the alleged soliciting of donations in return for access to senior politicians in the Conservative Party in England has once again brought into sharp focus why the funding of all political parties needs to be open and transparent.

Knowing who funds parties and their elected representatives enhances democracy, improves accountability and builds confidence that key decisions are being made for the right reasons.

The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which established the Electoral Commission, put a legal duty on parties to ensure that any donations they accepted of more than a few hundred pounds come from a permissible source with links to the UK, such as an individual on the electoral register. Parties also have to give the commission details of all donations and loans they accept above a certain level on a quarterly basis.

Over the last decade we have published the details of more than 33,000 donations and loans made to political parties in Great Britain. Together, these total over £497m.

In contrast, last year we published details of over £338,000 of expenditure incurred by political parties contesting the Northern Ireland Assembly election, but, as the law currently stands, we are unable to publish any details of where this money came from.

No information about the funding of Northern Ireland's political parties has ever been made public.

The current rules regulating party finance in Northern Ireland were introduced in 2007. These are broadly similar to the rules applying in Great Britain, but with two key differences.

Firstly, political parties in Northern Ireland can accept donations from permissible Irish sources, including Irish citizens, as well as from UK sources. Secondly, we cannot publish information on who donates to political parties.

It was originally intended that the confidentiality requirement would last for three years.

However, following a public consultation in 2010 the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland extended the current arrangements until March 2013, citing possible threat of intimidation to donors.

We have sought the views of voters on this issue through public opinion research. Results have consistently shown that more than six in 10 people think that information political party donation should be publicly available.

There has also been a decline in the number of people who think the current confidentiality arrangements should remain in place, with fewer than one in 20 expressing this view in December 2011.

The need for greater transparency was highlighted recently in a report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, chaired by Sir Christopher Kelly.

In his report, he recommended that voters in Northern Ireland be given information about who funds political parties as soon as the political situation permits. A key recommendation was that the UK government should commit to a timetable to subject donations in Northern Ireland to the same transparency rules as are in Britain.

The Commission shares this view. We have asked the Secretary of State to publish a timetable that will ensure legislation is in place by March 2013.

If at that point the security situation means that there are still well-founded concerns about the intimidation of donors, then the rules could be changed - temporarily - so that we can publish as much information as possible without identifying individual donors. .

All the main political parties have expressed support for greater transparency, but do not agree on the timing. It is ultimately a decision for the UK government to assess the current security situation, but this should not be a barrier to addressing what can be done to improve the transparency of party funding in Northern Ireland.

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